Literature Review vs. Essay.

It is easy to get confused about the difference between literature reviews and essays because these two writing structures can be based on the same research.  However, the main difference is on where the emphasis is placed.

The purpose of an essay is to use what is known about a subject to prove an argument or point of view.  Not all of the knowledge of a topic may be used in an essay, but only what is relevant to the argument.  In an essay, mentioning the people who discovered or developed the knowledge is generally only for referencing purposes.

On the other hand, a literature review is designed to be a critical analysis of all the knowledge that has been discovered about a subject.  Its purpose is to examine all that others have already discovered about the subject and the researchers working on the subject are considered to be key.

At a sentence level, one way to emphasise a particular aspect of a subject is to place that aspect at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs.

In an essay, where the focus is on the knowledge itself, it is put to the front of sentences.  For example:

Playing computer and video games have risen dramatically in popularity.  It is estimated that three billion hours of gaming are played globally each week.  The major reason for this is because players are able to tap into a high level of emotional satisfaction that is difficult to experience in everyday life (McGonigal, 2011).

However, in literature reviews what is considered to be more important are the authors and researchers who found or developed the information.  Therefore they appear at the beginning of sentences.

 Jane McGonigal (2011) estimates that three billion hours of gaming are played globally every week.  Her research suggests that the major reason for this is because players are able to tap into a high level of emotional satisfaction that is difficult to experience in everyday life.

This is not to say that both kinds of sentences can be used in both types of writing.  However, the overall trend for essays is to emphasise the information, whereas for literature reviews the trend is to emphasise the authors.

For more on the differences between the structure of essays and the structure of literature reviews,  check out QUT Cite|Write

13 responses

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  1. avatar

    I just wanted to say thanks for this! It’s a brilliant little concise guide which helped me instantly. Thank you!

  2. avatar
    T. Robinson

    Likewise!! Really helpful and so clearly put..much appreciated 🙂

  3. avatar

    Thank you for your help! I understand what has been said here but when I re-read my literature review, it sounds just like an essay. Does anyone have any more tips?

    • avatar

      Hi Leah,

      Have you looked at our Literature Review checklist? You might like to compare the checklist to your own work.


  4. avatar
    Claire Wilson

    To me a literature review is about stating what other researchers think of the topic. So, mostly I just restate what they said and put that in a nice form. Still, it’s indeed really hard to draw a clear line between the two, well, between any type of papers. For example, this literature essay on Beowulf is said to be an essay. But shouldn’t an essay have a thesis statement, some ideas to prove? Well, this one doesn’t have them. It looks like a narrative essay still it doesn’t tell a personal story. So, in the end I just cannot clearly define it.

    • avatar

      Hi Claire,

      Thanks for your comment! You can take a look at our page for Writing an Essay for some examples of different essay styles.

  5. avatar

    Helped like a charm, thank you very much!!

    • avatar

      Glad you found it useful Devin 🙂

  6. avatar
    Julia Morison (@juliamorison)

    Thank you, Jennifer, I also confused on this difference between literature reviews and essays. You define is very well I’m so glad. Before I will write essays and a research paper on a daily basis meantime I found a written research paper on literature. Here are lots of research papers I see I have shared one, and I hope that this would add value to the readers.

    • avatar

      Thanks Julie! We are happy that our post was able to help you! And thank you for sharing the other research papers with us.

  7. avatar
    Robert Welain

    Thank you for an interesting post!

    • avatar

      Hi Robert! Thank you for your comment, we are happy you found it interesting 😀

  8. avatar

    Thank you, only until know do i know and i looked at ur web first and im happy that i did

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